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r1ft Gaming Blog

A mirror of my gaming blog at r1ft.com. The jaded game designer turned corporate lackey. Feedback is always welcome.

Author: Daedren

Age of Conan: A Post Mortem Analysis

Posted by Daedren Thursday August 28 2008 at 4:34AM
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Hi, I'm Daedren. You might remember me from other articles such as "The effectiveness of raiding in only a tubesock" and "Erling Ellingson: Age of Conan Dev by day, Transvestite Cyborg by night?". It's me, alright, and I'm here, playing the role of the unbearer of bad news. I'm not bearing it, because it's not even news. This little tidbit of info-mation is that Age of Conan sucks. It's not the Gigli of the MMO industry, thank God, but that's only because Ben Affleck turned down his role for voiceovers for King Conan. No, I'm likening Age of Conan to be more of the Alexander of the MMO Industry: Huge expectations, huge budget; huge letdown, gracious cleavage.

This article isn't for people thinking about maybe playing Age of Conan. It's not for those still playing Age of Conan - which, admittedly, there still are. It's not even for the large majority of people who played the game, let it take you home, and then never called you back. This is solely targeted at a select group of people: the people at Funcom who helped make this piece of shit, and other people at other game companies who are also making a MMO. Now, you're probably thinking to yourself "Why the hell would Funcom devs read this wordy, highly opinionated article that's basically beating a dead horse, albeit more thoroughly and hopefully more eloquently than the past beaters?" The answer to that is I'm going to personally e-mail it to every one of them.

Funcom, now lovingly deemed "Failcom" by a good portion of the planet now, dropped an estimated $60M US pesos to produce what ended up being, for the most part, a huge disapointment to nearly everyone that played it. But hey, don't take it from me, let's take it from the burly, helmet clad raiders of Funcom themselves:

Erling Ellingson confirms that "subscriber base" is now 415,000 out of the original 800,000

My carefree use of the quotes here are for a reason. The term "subscriber base" seems to need an explanation.

Subscriber base is a fairly loose term which roughly means "People that might still be playing". You see, they fail to mention that in this 415,000 they're including anyone that still had their subscription active at the time of the report (15 August 2008).  That means if you were unfortunate enough to subscribe for 3 or 6 months at the time you bought the game, you're included in this number. No one actually knows how many active players they have as they've not released any server metrics, with damn good reason.

That means that half of the people that bought Age of Conan jumped ship within the first month of the release. And, if player estimates are correct, the actual player base is more realistically somewhere around 150K or 200K players. 3 months after release. Hell, Dark Age of Camelot and Everquest 1 are pulling those numbers today. Perhaps if Erling was actually honest and forward about the game and its flaws, instead of talking it up like it's the bees knees, his statements would gain a bit more credibility.

Next, we need to present the financial woes of Funcom and more importantly the CEO of the company:

Funcom Stock

Funcom Stock Sinking

Funcom CEO sells a pissload of his stocks, punches a baby

One really cool thing about Funcom is that all the execs have really cool viking sounding names like Olav and Gaute (pronounced like Gout). While this might be useful picking up American girls at a bar or scaring the shit out of someone by screaming their name at them, it seemingly means piss all when it comes to making a successful MMO.

Funcom stock dropped to all-time lows recently and the CEO is starting to liquidate. Next thing we know the lead Community Managers will be busted for kiddie porn and their corporate headquarters will mysteriously "catch on fire" - darn, and things were going so swell.

The Analysis

So, what the hell went wrong? Age of Conan does have a few redeeming qualities, that usually come with a price. Let's list these redeeming qualities, along with it's price:

Redeeming Quality     Price
Nice graphics         Shitty client
You see boobies       Shitty client
Heads do fly off      Shitty client
Good starting area    Delusion that the rest of the game will be like that

That takes us to cause of death #1: Poor client performance. Stability was actually better at release than it is now. Very few aren't victim of the memory leak bug - causing blue screens and CTD's quite frequently. Nothing like a few CTD's in a night to keep that immersion level going. The client itself is clearly lacking polish, something World of Warcraft did so splendidly. All the high res graphics and tits in the world don't mean anything if you can't keep your customer in the game and seeing these things.

Moving on: promised features. You've heard it all before: stuff was on the box that either wasn't there on release, or, functioning like Jenna Jamesons naughty parts: present but highly suspect.

Feature on the Box                    Status
DirectX 10 Support                    Rumored to exist somewhere
Drunken Brawling                      Needs more polish, like Gaute's Ferrari
Massive 150/150 PVP battles           Shitty client feature kicks in well before 300
Siege Battles, Keep Takes             Buggy and boring. If only there was an...
An actual PVP System                  Missing, presumed dead

I'll stop right there. In all honestly, no one gives a shit what is on the box of a game: who reads that anyway? However, a certain professional level is at least expected from a game company when they promote their product. Where do we draw the line? If the next MMO that hits the market says the box will give you a blowjob once you hit level 30 on your in game character, it had better well live up to its name, no matter how uncomfortable and disturbing that sounds.

Cause of death #2: Missing basic game features

Blah, blah, blah. This is all repeat shit from everywhere else. I'm effectively beating the proverbial horse here. It's time to move on to a more lucid analysis:

THE GAME IS NOT FUN

I suppose this makes all of theser "Causes of Death" a bit redundant. Objectively speaking, though, why is the game not fun? It's hard to put a finger on the exact reason, much like it's hard to explain why eating a plate of dog poo is not fun, other than it's a plate of shit. Let's start with this small, chaotic list:

  • Instanced zones
  • Lack of content past level 20
  • Uninnovative questing system (kill 50 what?)
  • Poor class balance in PVP
  • No PVP System whatsoever
  • A simple Rock / Paper / Scissors PVP design
  • Horrifically boring dungeon encounters
  • Lack of meaningful or interesting end game content
  • Itemization that seems like it was designed by a learning impaired doorknob
  • Extremely hard to customize your character or look different than anyone else
  • Travel system consists of trying to find new ways to kill yourself as quickly as possible
  • An economy that is completely broken
  • Crafting that is nothing more than a pointless time-sink
  • Identical guild cities everywhere that are, you guess it, nothing more than a pointless time-sink
  • Lack of creative vision when designing combat system
  • Complete lack of ingenuity regarding the spellcaster magic system
  • Failure to fix bugs in a timely fashion
  • Fixing bugs usually introduces more bugs into the game, which are then ignored for long periods of time
  • Focusing on stupid shit like spell names and sound effects when basic features of the game are not yet implemented
  • Legendary in-game customer support inspired by Verant and SOE
  • Constantly surprising players by showing how little they know about their own game
  • Inclusion of game breaking bugs (like gem duping or epic item farming) and then fixing them, oh, a couple weeks later

I know I missed a few. What it boils down to is that Age of Conan just doesn't provide a unique or meaningful game experience. Characters can level to max level somewhat quickly, yay!, only to be presented with the option of doing absolutely nothing interesting other than leveling yet another character to max level. A certain kudos is in place to Funcom for even failing at the basic treadmill system; for most people, that carrot on the end of the stick (being making another character to keep waiting for the real carrot) didn't go over to well.

That leads us into cause of death #3: Poor core game design makes the game not fun, nor addicting

Making a MMO that doesn't encourage players to play more, come back, or feel drawn to the game is like selling crack that doesn't get people high. I suppose some crackheads might say "but hey, I'm still smoking crack!" - but really, it's just a sugar cube that you paid 20$ for. In that sense, Age of Conan is a MMORPG without the first "M" or the "RPG". It's not Massively, because you're forced to be separated from the rest of your people either by the horribad instancing or poor zone design. It's not RPG because you don't feel like you are, indeed, roleplaying, due to the games limitations. At the end of the day, all we're really looking at is a "Multiplayer Online *something*" - or, in other words, a glorified chat room with mediocre Showtime-esque nudity that is prone to memory leaks.

I've by far passed the normal sane limit word count and thrown any credibility away as not saying whatever the hell is on my mind, so I need to hit one last point. There is one area, I must say, that Funcom has truly outdone itself:

Funcom Devs and Public Relations guys, we salute you!

For being complete tools.

Not all of them, of course. In fact, I bet its safe to say the majority of the Age of Conan team was just doing what they were told. Kind of like the Nazis were doing what they were told when they started cooking people. Intentional Godwin aside, most people of the dev team didn't have a big picture look at the game, so they can't be much to blame. However, Funcom has blessed us with a few memorable souls, and by memorable I mean complete assclowns and/or utter douchebags. First, we focus on the man himself. The one, the only, the...

Gaute Godager

This guy had some potential. Though his first name sounds like unsightly gout, his last name had the chance of being epic. It could have been "Go, Danger!" or, more sinisterly, "Go, dagger!". Now we're just left with not giving a shit what his name is because he's not only the "Game Director", meaning he's the one ultimately responsible for the state of this game, but also because his PR skills hover somewhere between "ghastly" and "humorously deranged".

Perhaps his most famous quote is this:

"I enjoy playing WOW, I enjoy playing Lord of the Rings Online. But you know... I'm going to be a bit cheeky now, but if you've been to McDonalds for four or five years, and had your burger and your coke, sometimes it's great to just have a great steak and a glass of good wine," he said.
 

You're exactly right, Gout. You were a bit cheeky. However, your analogy is a bit flawed. I'll fix it for you:

"I enjoy playing WOW, I enjoy playing Lord of the Rings Online. But you know... I'm going to be a bit cheeky now, but if you've been to McDonalds for four or five years, and had your burger and your coke, sometimes it's great to go into a restaurant, give them 50 bucks, stick around for 3 hours hoping you get food, before finally passing out with a bottle of MadDog 20/20 in your hand and still fucking hungry," he said.
 

You, sir, are no steak and wine. Well, I guess that's not entirely true. You could be a rancid Salisbury Steak TV dinner, along with a glass of wine that came out of a box, but even that's pushing it.

Last up, but certainly not least, is the great Erling Ellingson. This guy was pretty much unheard of before a few weeks ago, when he decided to show up at a couple conferences and do some interviews. Instead of handling these interviews like a normal, sane person, he decided to go another route. The route of lies, delusion and outright idiocy.

Don't believe me? Watch this video with Jon Wood of mmorpg.com - at your own risk. This guy squirms so much when talking you can tell he's bullshitting even with the sound muted. Here are some highlights:

 
"The game turned around 100% just before launch. Miracle patch..."
 
"The 1-20 part of the game was intended to be very detailed... When WoW launched, high end content was sparse. We have lots of stuff for players end game..."
 
 
"The PVP fugitive system, it's all new stuff that we're adding in. It's not stuff that was supposed to be in before launch..."
 
 
"We're incredibly happy with the launch of Age of Conan, it was an incredibly successful launch... "(proceeds to self fellatiate)
 
 
"It's really few things [that didn't make it into launch]. It's not really big features. "

The asinine comment about PVP not being a major feature earns a collective cockpunch to Erling on behalf of every player that played AoC hoping for a PVP oriented game. It was its main selling point, and it's the reason that most people wanted to play the game. Hell, even Erling himself states "This might surprise you, but most people that play AoC play on PVP servers" - no, that doesn't surprise us. What does surprise us that this "PVP Oriented MMO" doesn't even have a PVP system. Oh, and when you roll out this magical "PVP Fugitive Patch", you'll be taking away yet one more slightly redeeming quality that AoC once had: PVP Freedom.

Now, it's time for desert. The icing of the cake is brought to you by the collective tools at Funcom who thought that announcing an expansion for Age of Conan was a good idea. Apparently they're busy listening to Erling rant on about how the game is pure awesome-sauce rather than actually playing their game. Scarily enough, there is now a team of developers working on an expansion to Age of Conan, rather than fixing the fundamental problems the game has. Make it X rated and you might get a substantial player base back.

Conclusion

In summary, the main causes of the death Age of Conan were this:

1. Poor client design and performance

2. Lack of basic features included in the game

3. Unaddictive gameplay, lack of thought put into game design: the game simply isn't fun.

Worst of all, we have a company and the makers of this game telling us that it is good. These same people will be put on the next MMO. Hell, Gaute might even get the nod to direct Funcom's next MMO - assuming the company still exists. "Gee, Gaute, you did so well on Age of Conan, here is another 50 Million, go make us another blockbuster like it!" Get your head out of your asses, Funcom: the people that made the decisions on where this game was going need to never be allowed on another MMO project again. But hey, it's your money, it's your funeral.

Many people might be thinking "Man, why so fucking hostile?" - and I sympathize with that. I'm not pissed at these guys I'm making fun of, I'm more disappointed. The MMO industry is just peppered with mediocrity now and it's almost becoming industry standard. Objective journalism is nigh-unheard of at mainstream MMO websites because they don't want to piss anyone off. Lastly, while what I've written here is my opinion, it's really the collective thoughts from nearly every veteran MMO player that had the misfortune of playing Age of Conan.

Future MMO developers: use this as a lesson learned; things not to do. Above all, do not patronize your players like they don't know what the hell is going on. Funcom: the game is beyond saving, but try to save some face by actually admitting the games problems, and not tap dancing around the issues like a drunk circus bear. Honesty, though missing from your corporate vocabulary, goes a long way in player retention.

That's all. Daedren out.

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